The Standard Narrative of Progressive Liberationism
Many Americans, Christian or not assume a narrative that lines up the following into a new American civil rights manifest destiny.
- In the American Civil War and Abolitionist movement American abolished slavery
- In the Women’s Suffrage movement America began to embrace the dream of equality between the sexes (understood as male and female)
- In the Civil Right’s movement America began to embrace the dream of equality among the races
- In the LGBTQ movement for marriage equality American is beginning to embrace the dream of gender autonomy and public self-determination.
This narrative has become the primary moral matrix for public morality inside many churches and in the minds of the non-religious and anti-religious. It is meta-narrative broadly and simply assumed. It inspired a progressivist reading of the Bible even among some otherwise conservative evangelical scholars and is implicit behind so many demands for change in traditional institutions.
The broad implicit assumption of this narrative has brought conflict to conservative denominations like the CRCNA who have a strong tradition of Bible allegiance. According to conservative Protestant orthodoxy faithful Christians seek answers to social questions from the Bible. A classic example of this is the recent CTS Forum publication on Biblical and Hermeneutical Reflections on Same Sex Relationships. Anyone knowing the CRC will find no surprises in this document. I also doubt it will change anyone’s mind on the subject.
Massive Biblical Interpretive Pluralism
The CTS Forum pieces not only face the challenge of the culturally dominant Progressive Liberationist narrative but also the skepticism of massive Biblical interpretive pluralism. How can the Bible serve as a guide for public life when there is no public consensus on it’s interpretation? Can Christianity truly create cohesive consensus and community around the Bible when Christians can’t agree on what the Bible says?
This of course is an old question and challenge and there are LOTS of good books on the subject. Here are three that I’ve appreciated recently.
- Christianity’s Dangerous idea by Alister McGrath
- The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith
- The Apostles of Reason by Molly Worthen
I would argue that this isn’t simply a Protestant challenge. This struggle goes back to the New Testament in Jesus’ interpretive conflict with Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes and the reason Paul was kicked out of synagogues where he started his mission work in the Jewish diaspora.
Bible Study as Consensus Discovery
A recent blog post by a Richard Beck, chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University concisely summarized the critique Owning our Protestantism, We Follow Our Conscience Not the Bible. Here’s the heart of his argument.
Which brings me back to the point I was making to the group I was consulting with. Own your Protestantism, I said. While the desire to be “biblical” is laudable and important what you are actually doing here is discerning if you can hold together a hermeneutical consensus to prevent a schism if you make changes. Your work here is as sociological as it is exegetical.
What is actually going on in a group on the cusp of a change during a “season of discernment” when they set out to “study an issue,” which might involve inviting people like me into the discussion, is the cultivation of hermeneutical capacities and the assessment of hermeneutical tolerances. If the capacities and tolerances are there for the change you change. If not, you go back to working on capacities and tolerances. That, or you stay the course and don’t change.
This is not to suggest that the Bible isn’t speaking into the faith community during the process. Just that when it finally comes down to determining what the Bible says or doesn’t say that will be determined by the individual consciences of the members and that leaders, generally, will go with the consensus. That, or the leaders will, because of their own consciences, make a hermeneutical move to test the tolerances and risk the possibility of schism.
There are some good learned comments at the blog post as well. The issues do inflame old debates on ecclesiology.
This “testing” is clearly in process in the CRCNA and will be on full display at Synod 2016 over the Same Sex Marriage report.
While this dominant Progressive Liberationism narrative bears down on the CRC I find it helpful to read history. Progressivism has some roots in the Progressive Era that doesn’t get enough attention. The Progressive Liberationist narrative convenient jumps over the Temperance movement and more recently one of its key leaders Woodrow Wilson is having a hard time surviving at Princeton. Real history is always far more complex than a political or social narrative like this one.
Find an Analog
In pondering this moment in CRC history I decided to research a theological discussion that might prove to be an interesting analog to the current debate. It’s often helpful to look for one outside the reality distortion field created by all of the passions and agendas swirling around this debate.
I wondered about the debate concerning American slavery. The debate about the Bible and slavery comes up regularly in this debate. What did that debate actually look like?
Mark Noll is one of the finest and most important scholars of American Christian history. I believe he’s a member of the South Bend CRC while teaching at Notre Dame. He’s studied this issue and given public lectures on it. You can find these in the book The Civil War as Theological Crisis. It’s well worth your attention. It won’t answer your questions directly but it will shape how you view the present debate.
“If the Bible is Wrong on This is it Right on Anything?”
When someone’s assumptions about the Bible and morality come into conflict, the Bible often loses. The abolitionist movement was buoyed by story like that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What if you’re implicit moral sensitivities are shaped by this story yet you attend a church that declares that the Bible condones slavery? What happened was that many didn’t just change their minds about slavery they lost their faith in the process.
When abolitionists maintained that the Bible condemned slavery per se, they contradicted conclusions that the vast majority of white Americans drew from Scripture by using the same interpretive principles almost everyone had employed in drawing on the Bible for evangelizing the nation and constructing American civilization.
As a consequence, abolitionist efforts left the impression in many minds that to employ Scripture for opposing slavery had to undercut the authority of Scripture itself. In particular, arguments that contrasted the principles or the “spirit” of the Bible with the clear message of individual texts (its “letter”) were gravely suspect in a culture of democratic common sense that urged people to read and decide for themselves.
Mark A. Noll. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Kindle Locations 960-964). Kindle Edition.
I believe we see a similar dynamic happening in church today.
Noll helpfully surveys the broader landscape of arguments about slavery in the American context and helps us see that in many ways what we bring to the Bible and to such debates often shapes the outcomes in ways we are blind to.
Another striking similarity between the theological crisis of the Civil War and the present LGBTQ debate is how providence factors in especially on the progressive side.
When JRD Kirk recently came out on the inclusivist side of the present debate I again noted how much providentialist language came out too. Lots of talk among evangelicals about “the Spirit’s leading…” You can see the alignment between the Progressive Liberationist vision and their new affirmation of marriage equality. What’s happening in America is God working through this movement to bring his kingdom. Too bad the church is once again behind the Democratic party.
In the 19th century the lament was the church was too slow behind the Republican party. The New England Transcendentalists were all on board, what was wrong with the Southern Presbyterians and Baptists?
I am often struck by how my secular, and even anti-religious friends adopt providentialist language. Maybe we can thank Hegel and Marx for affording our common imaginary with the ability to assume human progress in a deistic or even atheistic providentialism.
Providentialism isn’t just for the winners, however. You can find the losers of the War Between the States also seeing the hand of God in their loss. God was driving this movement to refine, strengthen and purify them. Don’t we hear this language among the traditionalists today?
Noll helpfully shows how the Civil War strengthened providentialist assumption in the culture even while secularism began its great ascent.
The Civil War was When the Bible Fell Out of American Public Life
Deep in the passion of the present struggle especially in the United States is the lament of many evangelical Christians at their loss of cultural supremacy. Prayer is out of public schools. The Bible can’t be cited in public like it used to be. Today we view that as a function of pluralism but Noll helps show that this was well underway long before Muslims, Buddhists and other religious groups forced the pluralism aspect.
After the shooting stopped, two great problems in practical theology confronted the United States. One was the enduring reality of racism, which displayed played its continuing force almost as virulently through the mob and the rope as it had in the chain and the lash. The other was the expansion of consumer capitalism, in which unprecedented opportunities to create wealth were matched by large-scale alienation and considerable poverty in both urban and rural America. For religion to have addressed these two problems constructively, America’s believers would have needed the kind of intellectual vigor that evangelical Protestants had brought to bear on so many tasks between the Revolution and the Civil War. That vigor was embodied in culturally aggressive expressions of basically orthodox theology.
But the Civil War was won and slavery was abolished not by theological orthodoxy but by military might and a hitherto unimaginable degree of industrial mobilization. Although the war freed the slaves and gave African Americans a constitutional claim to citizenship, it did not provide the moral energy required for rooting equal rights in the subsoil of American society or for planting equal opportunity throughout the land. Although the war showed what could be accomplished through massive industrial mobilization, it did not offer clear moral guidance as to how that mobilization could be put to use for the good of all citizens. The evangelical Protestant traditions that had done so much to shape society before the war did possess theological resources to address both America’s deeply ingrained racism and its burgeoning industrial revolution.
But the Civil War took the steam out of Protestants’ moral energy. Protestants remained divided North and South. They became came even more divided along racial lines. The theology that had risen to preeminence in the early nineteenth century continued to work effectively for vast multitudes in private; but because of its public failure during the war, it had little to offer American society more generally in the decades that followed the war…
Foreign observers could see more clearly than Americans a situation that had become intractable: regardless less of how much voluntary reliance on scriptural authority had contributed to the construction of national culture, if no higher religious authority existed than the private interpretation of Scripture, then a major problem existed whenever there arose a public deadlock that was caused or strongly supported by conflicting interpretations of the Bible.
The issue for American history was that only two courses of action seemed open when confronting such a deadlock. The first was the course taken in the Civil War, which effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. As things worked out, military coercion determined that, at least for the purposes of American public policy, the Bible did not support slavery. The second course, though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War. That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of Scripture.
The result of following that second course since the Civil War has been ambiguous. In helping to provoke the war and greatly increase its intensity, the serious commitment to Scripture rendered itself ineffective for shaping broad policy in the public arena. In other words, even before there existed a secularization in the United States brought on by new immigrants, scientific acceptance of evolution, the higher criticism of Scripture, and urban industrialism, Protestants during the Civil War had marginalized themselves as bearers of a religious perspective in the body politic.
Mark A. Noll. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Kindle Locations 2092-2098). Kindle Edition.
Can you see how this history impacts the present debate? It isn’t General Grant and General Lee deciding anymore, but Presidents, elected officials and Supreme Court justices. Is it any wonder both sides (Trump notwithstanding) look for hope in our political parties to win our theological battles for us?
For many people the dominant interest in the church, whether they go to it or not, is that the church use its influence to support the political and legal agenda. This is behind a lot of the good things even anti-religious people say about Pope Francis. All they really want from the church is for it to support their political and social agenda. The Right is as guilty of this as the left. In the public sphere the church has lost its identity and become useful in the minds of others for the agendas of others.
The church remains a private resources for someone’s particular emotional needs, but the “real world” and the “real action” is whether the church will employ money, people or votes outside to do “real work”. The narrative of the church on a far broader religious canvas is seen as inconsequential. “Believe in Jesus? Believe in a higher power? Believe in nothing? Doesn’t matter.”
What really gets interesting is when political thought crimes (See the Brendan Eich incident) now becomes the standard for participation on the public sphere.
The CRC in the Broader World
- Before WWII the CRC lived Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option
- After WWII the CRC’s Reformed Journal faction burst out with their transformationalist vision where our Reformed distinctives and intellectual brilliance could contribute to the broader cultural conversation through our institutions (Calvin College, Institute for Christian Studies, World Renew) and our scholars.
- By the 150th Anniversary James Schaap laments that we had lost control of our own narratives
- Today we sit increasingly close to our older brother the RCA as they are torn between East (mainline following the Civil War, Progressive Era, Cold War Modernity and now Progressive Liberationist), West (geographically midwest Michigan, Chicago, Iowa, very similar to the CRC), and Far West (Evangelical, Charismatic, New Young and Reformed).
If we want to try to gain some perspective out of earshot of the culture war we could do worse than to read more history and Noll’s book is a good place to look.